“The Witch and the Runaway” was a unique submission experience for me in that I was accepted in the first and only publication I submitted to. That is that power of a perfect match. Briar’s Lit -- the online literary magazine which accepted and published my work -- is a publication for queer-themed fairy tales. And that is what I had written.
While I had only written this fairy tale back in October 2018 (this is quickest turn around from written to publication too), the inspiration is already a little fuzzy for me. I’m not sure if I ran across Briar’s Lit and its mission during my regular perusal of literary magazines and submission calls, and then this story sprung to me, or this story sprung to me and I fortuitously found Briar’s Lit. In truth, I think the two of them were more messily mingled together.
I think the inspiration and how it repurposes fairy tale (and Disney movie tropes) is evident. Take the princess who doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage because she wants to marry for love, and chop off that ending and make it that she doesn’t want to get married at all. Add a crotchety but fundamentally good witch and some found family themes, and there you go.
To be honest, this story probably reveals a lot of myself and my worldview in an explicit way more than my other stories.
If you missed it or haven’t had a change to read it yet, check it out Here.
In 2017, I entered a Maryland-based writing contest and ultimately had my short story submission “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things” place second. It was a pretty amazing experience that has involved an awards ceremony, a nice check, and free admission to a sci-fi writing conference where I read my story on a panel. Last but not least of all the honors, I was asked to be a judge for the 2018 contest.
I was sent the five finalists' stories that had been selected by the first round of readers. With the other finalist judges I was charged to rate each story between 1 and 10, and those ratings were be compiled and totaled to determine the first, second, and third place stories. I was also able to write commentary that was sent to the authors.
While I gladly volunteered, there was a little dread when I received the attachments of the stories in my inbox. See, I have a Bachelors in Creative Writing, and if you are familiar with creative writing classes you might know that they are usually done in the workshop model. We would read two to three of our classmates’ stories in preparation for each class, write critique letters, and discuss them in round table fashion during class. I read a lot of boring, not good, and pretentious stories in my pursuit of that degree to the point where I lost all perception of what was good and what wasn’t.
Had I just volunteered to relive that experience and read through five dull stories?
I clicked on the first one, opened it, read the first line and had my fears realized. The line was outright amateurish -- bland and generic. I was back in undergrad.
Thankfully, that did not end up being the case. After reading the story in full -- although avoiding it by saving it for last -- it did improve once it got into the story proper. It was still a weak opening, but fears did not realize completely.
What I ended up doing was reading five stories ranging from decent to heart-eyes-emoji (that’s the technical scale) and learned a lot from it.
What I Learned:
Point 1: Story is King.
The story I subjectively thought was the best wasn’t the one with the best prose. It was the one with the best story. Of course, story is both concept (but ideas are cheap), and the execution of that concept.
Point 2: Execution makes all the difference.
All the stories had interesting concepts. The contest was SF/F focused, so they were ‘high concept stories.’ Listen: AI’s as narrators, folk tale demons, space-time travel, visions of the future, and werewolves. Come on. That’s a goldmine. But as I (and of course many before me) have already stated, ideas are cheap. It’s all about how you present those ideas.
As one would expect, to get this far in the competition all were competent stories. It’s that fine polish of execution that makes a difference between competent and awesome.
Language and prose are part of the execution: the narrative strategy of POV, timeline, voice, and what not. When to start the story and when to end it and when to hit the other beats in between. All important.
Point 3: Setups and Payoffs are a balancing act.
Reading this selection of stories, one aspect of execution I became very aware of was ‘setups and payoffs.’
My favorite ‘heart-eyes-emoji’ story was a well-paced space adventure with the setups and payoffs interwoven from the first page to last. In contrast, there were stories with not enough setups, or not early enough, sapping the pay off of its power. There were stories that had a lot more setups than were ultimately paid off, which is like having a question without an answer.
That balance is so important to the reader because a story needs to make sense. It’s like laying out the clues in a mystery novel. All the plot workings need to be laid out for the reader bit by bit.
Point 4: Pacing is Important.
Like setups and payoffs, good pacing is essential to a well-balanced story. I saw one particular pacing hang up occur over a few of the short pieces I reviewed. The stories were… front-heavy. They spent too long in the beginning on things that weren’t the main point of the story.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s great pieces of writing advice is “Start as close to the end as possible.” Every writer should take that to heart. I often think about this, if not in the drafting stage, than the editing stage. (It’s very common in first drafts to start too early.)
To bring back another memory from my undergrad creative writing days, I recall how often a particular fiction writing professor of mine would often instruct students in workshops that their story actually started on page three, or five, or nine. There was always some sort of silent-eyed horror that passed over the face of whoever’s story it was, because there was a lot of hard-worked prose in there they were being asked to cut, but it was an important lesson. Remember you can integrate backstory in a lot of ways without starting at the very beginning!
My heart-eyes-emoji story dropped the reader right into the moment. All the world-building and character growth were part of the actual scenes.
Point 5: The Little Things Don’t Matter (When Everything Else is Right).
There will always be stuff to nitpick. There will always be an awkward sentence, or a moment that could’ve been tweaked to be stronger.
But when a whole story is a strong, compelling, and well-balanced all the nitpick-y sand falls from your eyes as a reader. You're too engaged being carried along by a well-crafted story to let the other things ruin the experience.
So… that’s what I learned. Maybe other people judge stories for competition by other criteria. Maybe they have a checklist or grid, giving out points to certain factors like this was an episode of Chopped: Presentation, Taste, and Creativity.
I read with my intuition. I can never exactly turn off my writerly brain when reading, seeing the tricks of how a writer pulls off a certain twist or thinking how I would’ve differently. I acknowledge there is always a measure of personal taste in something like this and any judging of the creative arts is subjective.
However, we humans are storytelling animals. We are surrounded by stories from birth on -- books, movies, television shows, the stories we tell each other, narratives in video games and other media, and on and on and on. We love a good story and absorb some feel for when a story works or when it feels off. We might not all be able to identify exactly what is off, or have the vocab for it, or be able to analyze it or write it ourselves, but we have the intuition.
I was glad I was able to use my storytelling intuition, in combination with my learned and practiced knowledge of creative writing and literary analysis, to learn about making and reading a good short story.
Back in 2015, I wrote a short story titled “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things,” approximately 1500 words then, and approximately 1500 words now. I had a very clear inspiration, vision, and shape for this story almost from the get go.
It was about a mystical pawn shop, one where you could trade in intangibles such as emotion, memories, and ideas. The vibe I wanted to impart was something a la Twilight Zone and Welcome to Nightvale. Despite knowing how polarizing it was, I knew it had to be in second-person. Yes, second-person, where the pronoun of the story’s protagonist was the vague and strange and damning ‘you.’
I’ve always believed in the possibilities of second power narration.
I did edit that first draft, mostly to make the beginning hook better and the ending clearer, with the core middle of the story, the part with the main character in the pawn shop, staying mostly untouched save for a few nips and tucks of language.
A deadline for a lit mag that I believed the story would be a good for had a looming deadline, so I sent it off. I also sent it to my closest friend for feedback. The feedback bantered back and forth, and more from my own insecurities than my friend’s suggestion, I rewrote “Pawn Shop” in a much safer, more conventional third person perspective.
I sent that third person draft off to a number of lit mags.
Form rejections poured in.
Then, that first magazine I applied to, the one where I had sent my rough, second-person draft, responded. They really liked it. The editors didn’t have room for it in the nearest issues, but they would like to consider for a future issue in 6 months’ time.
I learned something in that moment about trusting my storytelling instincts. In the case of “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things” third person could never catch the vibe, the aura, the strange-twilight-zone otherworldliness I was aiming for. All that spark, that clear-sighted inspiration I had the beginning of the project had been sanitized away for a version of a story that might tick off the correct checkmarks of conventional writing wisdom (don’t write in second person!), but lose everything that made it unique.
While that initial interest and hold for further consideration from the first magazine didn’t pan out, I started sending out my second person draft again. I received plenty of form rejections, but I also received a number of personalized recognitions, more than I was getting for my other circulating stories and way more than I ever received for my third person draft of “Pawn Shop.” There were some almosts and some ‘we really liked it but it wasn’t the right fit for our magazine and/or issue at this time but we’re going to list it as an honorable mention.’ (No lie.)
Two years later, in June 2017, I submitted said story to Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest. In August I received notification my story was a finalist. In September I learned I had won second place. On October 7, I got to go to a real life awards ceremony where I was invited on stage and had people shaking my hand afterwards like I was super important.
The award from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society is not attached to publication when it comes to second and third place (but it had come with a nice monetary prize), meaning ‘The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things’ had yet to find a home to be published.
However, it’s a winner. While second-person might be polarizing, might not be mainstream or conventional, and while I primarily write in third and sometimes in first, it was the right choice for telling this particular story. And winning, and getting those ‘almost’ personal rejections meant that there are people out there who are getting it, appreciating it, liking it.
The moral of this story is… do not give up after a few rejections, or a few years of rejections. Taken feedback in consideration, but make sure that you are staying true to your instincts and be willing to take the unconventional risks. Ultimately the vision of a story is yours, and sometimes success and finding the people who ‘get it’ takes time, but taking time is worth.
And while you’re waiting, keep writing.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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